Fans of the friendly neighbourhood web crawler and crime fighter, rejoice! While it isn’t a perfect summer blockbuster and not even the best Spider-Man film, Spider-Man: Homecoming – Peter Parker’s first major integration into the Marvel Cinematic Universe after appearing in Captain America: Civil War – captures the charm and essence of its humane, conflicted hero. Eschewing any sort of origin story this time out, Spider-Man: Homecoming aims for a more straightforward coming-of-age tale that just so happens to take place within the extended Marvel mythology; ditching the over-plotting and go-for-broke messiness that hampered Spidey’s last three big screen outings. While still acting as part of a behemoth franchise (that now spans two major studios), Spider-Man: Homecoming’s character-based approach allows for a satisfying, but sometimes rough around the edges superhero flick.
After helping out Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) during his squad’s beef with Captain America and the other half of his fellow Avengers, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is returned home to his Aunt May (Marissa Tomei) and his everyday teenage life in Queens, New York. As a thank you gift for helping out (and instead of making Peter a full member of The Avengers), Stark gives Parker a tricked-out super-Spidey suit. Peter’s unlikely and aloof billionaire mentor admonishes the teenager with arachnid infused super-powers to stick to fighting crime closer to home, leaving his valet Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) to act as an arm’s length liaison to the young man. Antsy and desperately wanting to prove his worth on a greater level, Peter pesters the annoyed and apoplectic Happy for greater responsibility to no avail. But when Peter stumbles onto a plan hatched by a former blue collar worker turned criminal mastermind (Michael Keaton) to flood the streets of New York with deadly weapons made from salvaged and stolen alien technology, the young man takes his crime fighting initiatives to another level without fully knowing the danger and complexity of the situation at hand.
Full disclosure: Spider-Man has always been my favourite superhero since childhood, and not just because we share a surname. Whether Peter is being depicted as a teenager (as he is here) or as an adult (as in director Sam Raimi’s earlier films with the character), there’s a humanity and pathos that eclipses all of his fellow superheroes. Peter Parker is constantly trying to find his way in the world. He knows he has extraordinary powers, he’s kind of nerd, he’s duty bound, and sometimes it’s a struggle for him to maintain a sense of humility. In opposition to many of his fellow cape, tight, and armour wearing crusaders, he has more problems based in real world fears. Every decision Peter makes is personal, often rashly thought out. Some of his decisions could affect the fate of New York City and the world at large, but what these decisions mean to those around him will have longer lasting psychological consequences. Peter Parker isn’t a scientist, wealthy industrialist, god, super-soldier, alien, machine, or talented crook-turned-do-gooder. He’s a dorky kid who will grow into a struggling adult, and one who can never let his alter ego be known outside of a core group of close friends. Peter Parker always feels unsure if he’s in the hero game for the glory or not, and that tension between his own personal level of comfort and his sense of responsibility is more interesting than a thousand Thors or Hulks.
The team behind Spider-Man: Homecoming seizes upon this, realizing that the teenager’s ability to take every case as a personal crusade makes him a perfect counterpoint for the direction the franchise has given to Tony Stark. While in the early going, Spider-Man: Homecoming feels a bit too much like an Iron Man film – with Peter spending a lot of time getting used to the powers of his new suit and not doing much of real narrative consequence – the handful of moments where Stark and Parker find themselves at loggerheads provide an interesting, potentially ongoing conflict. Here are two characters with bad memories tied to the key father figures in their lives competing for the world’s attention like spoiled children while ostensibly working for the same team. The dynamic gives new dimensions to two established characters that are constantly in danger of going stale.
The personal nature of Peter’s crime fighting backstory thankfully isn’t rehashed here (and the name “Uncle Ben” isn’t even uttered), but the character makes its way to the MCU with its comic book roots intact. Holland’s Parker isn’t moody and brooding like Tobey Maguire or egotistically brash like Andrew Garfield. Holland, in the most perfect portrayal of the character to date, embraces Peter Parker’s youthful awkwardness and eagerness. This isn’t a character who has been broken down by the world around him (or at least not yet), and director/co-writer Jon Watts (Cop Car) and his team of five fellow screenwriters never try to force any true darkness into the mix unless the story calls for it in small doses. It’s not a film about a tortured hero, but an adventure yarn about a naive kid trying to get noticed and do what he thinks is right.
There are a lot of hurdles that Peter has to bound over, and while Spider-Man: Homecoming is consistently engaging, the wide array of lightweight subplots and world building breadcrumbs does lead to a final product that feels unnecessarily long. Charming and likeable newcomer Jacob Batalon plays Peter’s closest and neediest friend Ned, the only person other than Stark and Happy who knows the teen’s alter ego. Peter and Ned are members of their school’s academic decathlon team, which also includes Peter’s current crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), his future crush Michelle (Zendaya), and his biggest bully, Flash (Tony Revolori, handily stealing every scene he’s in with gleefully reprehensible aplomb and cowardice). A good chunk of the film is a standard, but reliable teen comedy that finds Peter and Ned trying hard to become cool kids at school without giving away Spider-Man’s identity. While that’s entertaining, it forces every other major plot thread involving Vulture, Stark, and Aunt May to the side. The two stories complement each other fine on a thematic level, but there’s a decided start-and-stop feeling to Spider-Man: Homecoming that makes the sustaining of momentum a bit tricky, and leads to a late second act revelation about Keaton’s thinly drawn villain not landing with as much surprise or impact as it might have in a more tightly constructed script.
Despite the obvious narrative motivations and cultural subtext behind Keaton’s Vulture – which basically boils down to “they took our jobs” – the actor once again proves why he’s a force to be reckoned with in villainous roles. As Vulture’s human counterpart, Adrian Toomes, Keaton portrays a man who tries to put on a brave face to the world, but can barely keep his anger in check. Much like how Spider-Man is portrayed as a budding hero, Vulture is an impetuous villain who prefers to take immediate action before asking any questions. It’s a classic story of a hero and a villain both fighting for recognition from a world that has held them back, and quite similar to the conflict found in Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (which remains the highest point for the character thus far). Keaton and Holland understand the duality of their characters wonderfully, with the latter’s goodhearted nature paired nicely against the simmering malice of the former.
Watts acclimates himself nicely to the dramatic and comedic beats of his first blockbuster effort, but the quality of his action sequences varies wildly, and some otherwise innocuous scenes of character development begin and end in odd parts that suggest a sudden truncation of otherwise decent moments. There are many thrilling moments to be had – especially watching Spidey trying to stop an elevator from plummeting from the top to the bottom of the Washington Monument – but Watts always seems to be struggling with Spidey’s kinetic and frantic pace of crime fighting. The editing gets pretty sloppy (which is even more noticeable thanks to the script’s pacing issues), and I have no idea who thought that the ugly looking finale atop an “invisible jet” with strobing light panels was a sound, workable idea, but thankfully Watts sticks to his strengths most of the time. Watts approaches the tale of Peter Parker as a character study first, a franchise film second, and a special-effects spectacular third. I doubt that most audiences will call out Watts’ lack of technical chops since the most memorable moments won’t involve any of the action sequences. That’s proof that at least Watts has put the emphasis on what counts the most: heart, character, humour, and huamity.
While it sounds like Spider-Man: Homecoming teeters close to having a lot more going on than a single film could handle, the team at Marvel have given viewers just enough with this entry into their growing universe of titles to make them want more. Holland’s charm, energy, and likeability, and the film’s winsome ability to tap into the character’s every-teen persona goes a long way to righting the wrongs of the most recent Spidey flicks. It will be interesting to see the direction the character takes from here, especially given how the character has a foot in two major studios, but for now, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a strong step in a positive direction.